Economists are usually grim people. But a tiny minority can be fun, too. That’s probably why two of them, William Briet and Kenneth Elzinga of the US, started writing murder mysteries 45 years ago. Most economists haven’t heard of their books. But some American universities had made them prescribed reading.
Breit and Elzinga took what journalists call a joint byline. They called themselves ‘Marshall Jevons’ because Alfred Marshall was a 19th century English economist who invented marginal analysis in economics and William Stanley Jevons introduced mathematics into its analysis.
Breit and Elzinga wrote three novels between 1978 and 1995: ‘Murder at the Margin’; ‘Fatal Equilibrium’; and ‘A Deadly Indifference’. Then Breit passed away. Elzinga wrote a fourth one called ‘Mystery of the Invisible Hand’.
Their detective is a fat and balding economics professor at Harvard called Henry Spearman, and a Nobel winner to boot. It’s hard to say who he modelled on but amongst the characters, in ‘A Deadly Indifference’, Joan Robinson of Cambridge, UK, is clearly recognisable.
Rationality, or rather its absence, is the basis of the novels. That’s how Spearman solves the mysteries — by assuming that people often act irrationally and make mistakes. The tension between rationality and irrationality is present throughout the books and is handled with great finesse.
Once he finds that an artist has committed suicide which is actually a murder. Spearman solves it by using the Coase theorem, and auction theory. It’s a masterpiece. This is taking it to another level altogether.
So we have four superb mysteries, written by expounding on four highly influential economic theories. They make for highly enjoyable reading.
So see what two real Nobel laureates have said about these books:
Paul Samuelson said, “At last a new kind of mastermind — a rational ‘homoeconomics’ and libertarian. If Henry Spearman had not existed, God would have had to invent him…”
Milton Friedman said, “I thought the economic argument extremely ingenious and the idea of using economic analysis as a way to solve the mystery most original.”
Nothing further needs to be said.